STARKVILLE — Too small. Too slow. Too short.
Blair Schaefer has heard those words plenty of times in her career. But the 5-foot-7 guard didn’t grow into an integral piece of the No. 2 Mississippi State women’s basketball team because she listened to what other people thought about her.
Instead, Schaefer attacked the game with an approach that dared others to be tougher than her or to take and to make more big shots in smaller windows.
That’s why it was fitting to hear SEC Network’s Paul Sunderland follow Debbie Antonelli’s refrain of “too small, too slow, too short” to describe what some thought about Schaefer with “too smart, too tough.”
The comments came Thursday night after Schaefer took a charge on Missouri’s Jordan Frericks to force a turnover in the waning seconds. The charge was part of a season-high 20 point night in which Schaefer delivered a trademark gritty effort to lead No. 2 MSU to a 57-53 victory against Missouri.
“I think it is just a habit,” Schaefer said of her charge. “We form so many habits in practice and we do so many defensive drills that it is one of my jobs to be a good help defender. That is what I do.”
No. 2 MSU will look to Schaefer to produce a similar performance at 6 p.m. Monday (ESPN2) when it plays host to reigning national champion and No. 7 South Carolina before a sold-out crowd at Humphrey Coliseum.
MSU (23-0, 9-0 Southeastern Conference) will look to extend its program-record winning streak to start the season against a team that beat it three times a year ago, including in the SEC tournament title game and in the national title game.
South Carolina (18-4, 7-2) is coming off an 83-58 loss to No. 1 Connecticut in Columbia, South Carolina. A win would help the Gamecocks bring the Bulldogs closer to the pack in the league. MSU enters the game with at last a two-game lead against every SEC opponent.
Schaefer has been a key piece of an offense that is shooting 47.4 percent from the field (second in the SEC, 12th in the nation) and is scoring 83.8 points per game (first, ninth). The former Starkville High School standout is fourth on the team in scoring at 9.9 points per game. She leads the SEC with 62 3-pointers and in 3-point field goal percentage (41.3 percent).
But Schaefer isn’t only a sniper. She has an uncanny knack to read the game and to know where her teammates need her help. Earlier this season against Alabama, Schaefer was on the right side of the floor guarding a player on the 3-point arc. When the ball shifted to the left wing, Schaefer moved into help position in the lane and then quickly shifted to the left side of the lane to draw a charge on Shaquera Wade.
Schaefer had similar awareness against Missouri when she saw her player move toward the top of the key and realized teammate Victoria Vivians needed help. Schaefer didn’t hesitate to plant her feet, to raise her arms high over her head, to stick her chest out, and to brace for impact.
“I was just so glad I was there in help and that they called it,” Schaefer said. “Usually if it is the last 10 seconds in a game you don’t know if the refs are going to call anything.”
The turnover led to two free throws by Teaira McCowan that sealed the deal.
MSU coach Vic Schaefer has seen Blair, his daughter, make a play like she made against Missouri countless times. He called it a “really gutsy” play that epitomizes Blair’s tenacity.
“She is just a really instinctive player,” coach Schaefer said. “She has been drilled over and over throughout her lifetime on how to do certain things. In that moment, it doesn’t matter if there are two seconds or it is the first two minutes of the game, she is going to make the same play.
“In that moment, she understands two point lead, they need a two, somebody is fixin’ to get it and drive it, let me see where I am at to where I can give some help. I think that is what she is thinking. She is pretty smart.”
When asked how she would describe Schaefer if she was a broadcaster, Vivians said, “She is a tough, physical, aggressive player. She does the dirty work and she makes great shots. When the ball is thrown to her, I would say over 50 percent of the time it is going in.”
The charge helped Schaefer tie classmate Morgan William for the team lead in charges taken with 15. She has continued to put her body in harm’s way despite dealing with shoulder trouble. Schaefer still wears a wrap on her right shoulder that she said helps reassure her she is capable of doing it.
Schaefer probably would find a way to do what she calls “her job” if she wasn’t physically able. She understands part of her role on the team is to do the “dirty work” and the “little things” to help the Bulldogs win.
The ability to do those things has helped Schaefer brush off the comments and the doubt of others and become one of the biggest weapons in the SEC.
“I don’t really pay too much attention to what people say,” Schaefer said. “Everyone is always going to have an opinion. That’s fine. It is part of the game. I just have to go out there and do what I know I do. My team knows what I do to help us succeed. That is really what I am going to focus on.
“I am not going to be a 6-4 big, combo guard. I am this 5-7 guard hat does the dirty work, hustles, make all of the energy plays. That is good enough for me.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.